21 May 2010

Not about money

With news yesterday that Unite the union's planned strike against British Airways (BA) action was lawful and will potentially commence on Monday, we look at two disputes - one ongoing - in which matters have escalated to the point that both sides agree on one thing: that wages are not the issue.

British Airways -vs- Unite

As early as last autumn, BA, headed by its chief executive Willie Walsh, has clashed with its workforce. Initially, the issue was over proposed cuts to the number of crew on board each aircraft and a pay freeze. BA used the company's well-publicised financial plight to, if nothing else, draw sympathy from the public at large. A strike was planned but was deemed illegal by the High Court since many of those balloted would have left the company before the strike action could take place.

In a recent interview with the BBC News Channel, Tony Woodley, Joint Leader of Unite, said that the issue now was not regarding pay, but a sticking point concerning employee travel concessions.

At the moment in time, BA employees are entitled to:
  • Following six months' service, unlimited stand-by Economy flights charged at 10% of the advertised price for the employee and his/her wife and children; or partner; or someone from the employee's list of nominated people (up to 3 permitted and can be amended every 6 months)
  • Those ranked more senior may upgrade (at a financial cost) to non-stand-by tickets
  • Reciprocal agreements are in place with other major airlines with like-for-like 10% stand-by Economy flights
  • After 5 years' service, an allocation of free stand-by Economy flights is afforded to each employee. Those with in excess of 20 years' service are given double this amount.
Stand-by travel means that employees and their family/nominated persons can only travel on their intended flight provided booked customers do not turn up. If all are present, the BA staff member and family cannot travel. Free flight allocation after 5 years does not include taxes.

Back in March, when BA cabin crew first went on strike, Unite's members were told by BA that the risked losing their travel concession permanently. This is the current sticking point. With news that the Court of Appeal yesterday overturned the initial ruling on Wednesday that Unite's planned strike action was illegal, following claims that news of the 11 spoilt ballot papers from the 11,000 received, wasn't clearly relayed to its members, the planned 15 strike days are solely over the travel concession's reinstatement.

First South Yorkshire -vs- Unite

In the bus industry, the loggerhead between Unite and First South Yorkshire was finally resolved at the start of the week. Again, the financial side of the latest pay deal had been resolved many months ago, though the 700-employee Olive Grove depot in Sheffield had rejected their deal in full following sticking points on non-wage related items.

Their 'beef' was regarding the taking of holiday and perceived flaws in the disciplinary procedure. After many months of negotiation between First's directorship and Unite, an agreement has been reached and the deal recommended for acceptance by the Union. First South Yorkshire employees at Sheffield now have guarantees:
  • A 'no strike' clause was removed from an earlier draft
  • The instigation of an independent Review Panel, whose sole purpose is to scrutinise the manner in which employees have been disciplined. The Review Panel's composition will be of managers and Unite union reps from neighbouring First depots and whose decision is final
  • Any disciplinary award must be 'the minimum necessary'
  • Employees are now officially permitted to group together their annual holiday entitlement to take on one block
  • Holiday days may be taken individually provided no outstanding lieu days left
The deal brokering since October last year, when drivers went on strike in Sheffield for four days over 7 collective grievances, has seen the Union overturn 5 of these, plus compensation has been paid to drivers who, the Union claim, were made to route learn in their own time.

Astonishing parallels exist between both disputes, the main one being that to end the strike action sees very little financial hardship for the employer. First accepted egg on its face and agreed to set-up the Review Panel and allowed flexibility on how its workforce can take its holidays, to mention but two items. BA needs to do the same regarding its staff travel concession and by Tony Woodley's own admission, the strikes will be called off.

First's pension deficit is nothing like BA's and only one small, but sizeable depot within its empire, was turning up the heat. Had it been its entire UK workforce, perhaps Sir Moir - who undoubtedly will have been briefed very closely about developments in Sheffield - wouldn't have been so understanding.

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